Inside the Small California Town with a Lot of Prisons, but Not Much Opportunity

Adelanto is a desert town with 30,000 people, three incarceration facilities, and no McDonald's.

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Feb 3 2015, 5:00am

All photos by the author

Adelanto, California, is a small high desert town just a two-hour drive northeast of Los Angeles, but it feels a long, long way away from Southern California's stereotypical palm trees and beaches.

This is a town, like many others around the country, that exists largely thanks to America's overgrown prison industry. There are three incarceration facilities within its city limits, providing beds for up to 3,340 inmates. Two of these facilities are privately owned and operated by GEO Group, one of the US's largest private prison operators. The San Bernardino County Sheriff's department operates the third. On Adelanto's border with its neighbor city Victorville is a gigantic federal complex that's home to another 4,600 inmates.

Late last November, the town's outgoing city council decided that they needed more prisons, approving by a vote of four to one plans for the construction of two new correctional facilities. One was to be a privately owned and operated 1000-bed facility from GEO Group, and the other a $327 million, 3,264-bed facility developed independently by Doctor Crants, the founder of the private prisons company Corrections Corporation of America, that's intended to house overflow from Los Angeles County's embattled jail system.

GEO Group has since withdrawn the proposal for its facility—according to the city manager, James Hart, that was just a bureaucratic ploy to make sure the company's permits don't expire on land they might wish to build a jail upon in the future. But if the other facility is completed as promised, there will be space for more than 6,500 inmates in Adelanto—and there are only around 30,000 non-prisoners in the town.

Adelanto is a wasteland of tractor-trailers, trailer homes, and trains. It's a harsh place to live. Temperatures in the summer are often in the triple digits, the only relief coming in the form of a 60-mile-per-hour wind biting desert dust into your skin. Residents have to cope with one of the worst regional economies in the entire United States: At its peak, in 2011, the unemployment rate in Adelanto was nearly 22 percent. Today that number rests closer to 12 percent. But development is still painfully slow.

"You can't buy a pair of shoes in Adelanto," former Mayor Cari Thomas told me. "For those, you'll have to drive down to the Walmart in Victorville. There's very little opportunity for residents to work in the city,."

Aside from the jails, the big news in town is the construction of a Dollar General store, located adjacent the Circle K, across the street from City Hall.

For small, economically depressed towns like Adelanto, building a prison seems like a path toward salvation—but it seldom pans out as a wise long-term strategy.

Adelanto is one of many such towns. Take Florence, Arizona, a city of 25,000 where there are no fewer than nine public and private prisons. McFarland, California, population 14,000, has three privately operated prisons.

All across the country, the story repeats itself: Dozens of small towns with little to no commercial development are dominated by millions of dollars of incarceration infrastructure. That's thanks largely to a prison-building boom in the 1990s, when by some estimates a new prison opened somewhere in rural America every 15 days.

But seldom does prison development become the economic engine cities hope for when approving them. Studies have shown these facilities do little to help local economies, and may even hurt. So why do depressed cities keep choosing to build more jails?

Adelanto's city manager, Dr. James Hart, spoke dispiritedly when he explained some of the history behind his home's current financial state. A $2.6 million budget deficit means the town struggles to provide basic city services like trash collection. Over the past decade, Hart's watched the city's payroll shrink from more than 200 employees to its current number of 43. Although about 90 of those jobs were lost when the city sold their correctional facility to GEO Group, Hart says he's had to lay off more than 50 employees during his tenure.

Adelanto was historically a bedroom community for workers and families affiliated with the nearby George Air Force Base. The base closed in 1992, robbing the town of a primary employment center and catapulting it into financial uncertainty.

Adelanto's first correctional facility opened in 1991. For Adelanto, building a prison and contracting with the state of California seemed like a good deal. The state contract offered a revenue stream, in addition to about 100 jobs for Adelanto residents who worked at the prison.

"Back then, the city felt correctional facilities would bring jobs in Adelanto" said Hart. "We hoped people could use their job to buy houses in the city, stimulating a housing boom with more development following."

Adelanto soon approved two more private prison projects, one from developer Terry Moreland and another from GEO Group. San Bernardino County has since purchased Moreland's facility, and Adelanto's original facility is now part of GEO Group's expanded 1,940-bed Immigrant Detention Center.

Despite the promises, the prisons have failed to stimulate lasting growth in Adelanto. None were compelled to hire exclusively from within city boundaries, and all ultimately ended up contributing little to the city's coffers.

Which brings us back to today, to a city that has three prisons but no McDonald's. The city's budget deficit means it's threatened with disincorporation unless it can somehow solve its monetary woes. The new prison project may help, but residents worry that building more prisons will do little more than further solidify the city's image as one big jail.

"Adelanto has always been considered the ghetto of the high desert," said Mario Novoa, a documentary producer who grew up in and recently moved back to Adelanto from Los Angeles to be closer to his aging parents. "There's always just been nothing here except the prisons, and as far as I can tell they haven't done much to help the city develop anything other than more prisons."

Novoa says he wasn't actually aware of the proposed prison expansion until right before the November election, when three of the five city council candidates, including the mayor, were up for re-election. He says, that other than an occasional mention, it was all kept very "hush-hush."

During the election, Mayor Cari Thomas supported the construction of new prisons, arguing that they would bring jobs to the city. Her chief opponent was a man named Rich Kerr, who advocated against more prison construction.

Kerr won the election, but changed his mind after assuming office, choosing to support the construction of new facilities. Kerr says it's a business opportunity that the city would be naive to pass up on.

"I know it's going to bring revenue to the city: $1.2 million a year [in reference to Doctor Crants's facility] almost cuts our deficit in half," Kerr said. "Let me do what I need to do to push the city in the right direction."

By profession, Kerr is a cell tower technician. During the day, he works for Motorola, installing and upgrading network infrastructure across the Southland. An ex-Marine, he's become resolute in his decision to support the construction.

"Sure I changed my mind. It's like when you're going for dinner at Shakey's but then you see Red Robin and decide to get that instead," Kerr said. "These facilities will bring good jobs to the town, jobs we need desperately."

Of course, there's no guarantee that the new prison will generate jobs for residents of Adelanto—after all, the ones already there certainly haven't done the trick. An informal poll I took of the three GEO Group employees who were demanding I stop taking photos of their facility revealed that none actually lived within Adelanto's city limits.

Doctor Crants explained in a phone interview that his facility will give employment preference to residents of the high desert, but doesn't include any particular stipulation to hire from within the city of Adelanto itself. Nor was he clear about whether the construction jobs would be locally sourced.

Adelanto Councilman Jermaine Wright has been the lone dissenting vote against the prisons. He opposes the facilities because he doesn't believe incarceration is the correct answer when it comes to dealing with criminal activity, and opposes the premise of an industry invested in making sure people remain behind bars.

"When they come out of prison, they have nothing to go to," Wright told me. "Sure, they might be trained when they're inside the facility, but there isn't any support infrastructure to help these people once they walk out."

Wright understands that Adelanto is in a bind, but thinks that instead of developing more prisons, the city should seek out other development. Like so many others, Wright wants to refocus the incarceration spending binge on something more practical, specifically education.

"We spend way more on prisons than we do schools in this country. That's a fundamental wrong that needs to be righted," said Wright. "If we even thought about educating people the way we imprison them, then maybe we wouldn't be so stuck."

In California, statistics from the Legislative Analyst's Office show the average cost per prisoner per year exceeds $47,000 per year. By contrast, numbers from the California Department of Education reveal the state spends less than $9,000 per year on average per K–12 student. Indeed, Adelanto has a history of prioritizing jail development over education in the name of jobs. For a couple years, Adelanto high school students took classes in trailers in a corner of neighboring Victorville's continuation school while a brand new high-school campus sat vacant in Adelanto, unable to open since its completion in 2012 because the project was over budget by $3.4 million. At the same time, San Bernardino County was conducting a $145 million expansion of Adelanto's High Desert Detention Center, a project that ran $25.4 million over budget but still opened before the high school campus did in August.

"It felt like a slap in the face for us—the knowledge that our governments were spending millions to expand jails while our kids were being taught in trailers delivered a very clear message," said Vickie Mena, a resident of Adelanto and organizer with Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC). " We felt like the city was telling us, 'We don't care about your education or your school, but we'll open jails and more jails.'"

Companies that develop prisons, both for public and private operation, actively seek out economically depressed towns like Adelanto because they make for easier sells than places that might have other options.

"When the corporations pick up that a town is economically struggling, they come in promising economic security, jobs, and other benefits," said Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, an NGO working to end for-profit incarceration. "Affluent cities have the power to say no. That option doesn't really exist in smaller, depressed cities."

And when a facility closes down, it saddles local government with the responsibility of dealing with the abandoned prison infrastructure and the erasure of whatever income the facility provided.

They smell the desperation, people like Crants," Novoa, the producer, added. "They see the city as easy prey, where they can come in and essentially take over."

Not that any of this dissuades those in Adelanto who want to build more prisons.

"We can't look to the past because what's happened before hasn't gotten us anywhere," Mayor Kerr said. "I've got to look forward."

Matt Tinoco is a young reporter living in Los Angeles who wants work. Follow him on Twitter.

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